The CEO Playbook

John and I were just talking about what we had learned after ten years worth of board meetings and innumerable discussions (maybe even confrontations with CEOs) from literally three continents. Seems to us that like marketing, there are play books everywhere. One of the most important one we’ve learned about in that time are the three different “plays” which CEOs seem to run. Sometimes I think they are more persona than they are plays, nonetheless, they are very distinct.

With the very sad passing of Steve Jobs, we’ve spent so many hours talking about his legacy and perhaps in that we see how CEOs can sometimes be Bill Gates, sometimes be Steve Jobs and sometimes be Jack Welch. The magic is in being able to switch in a way that makes sense to the reset of team. So here are the three personas we see:

Be Strategic!

We’ve debated long and hard but it does seem as if the most important job as CEO has is making sure their company is in the right market and in the right situation to achieve a durable position. Because if you don’t have a good base, what else really matters?

Having spent a small amount of time with Bill Gates in the early days of Microsoft, I think we can say that being in the right part of the industry with the right marketing play is absolutely critical. In that world, it was far better to be supplying a critical component that everyone needs rather than say being a reseller. It is why Microsoft has endured, but sadly Egghead Software didn’t. Retailers just didn’t have a comparative advantage compared to an enduring software asset.

Those are days when listening is very important and it is incredible to us how the biggest insights normally don’t come form the SVPs or the Board, but from someone way down in the organization. Bill’s real gift back then was knowing how to see past the hierarchy to the insight. It is why a lowly program manager could write a single memo and Microsoft went from being a proprietary networking company to embedding TCP/IP and the rest of the Internet stack into Windows. It is why Microsoft started a game group based on proprietary hardware and software running completely counter to its horizontal software started on PCs. (Thanks J!)

This is a tough job, but recognizing when the playing field is wrong and moving quickly is perhaps the first and most important job of a great CEO. And interestingly, the job is really to first write the think memo saying things are broken and here are the goals and then to cast a broad swath and really listen as far down in the organization as necessary for the answer.

Insanely Great Products

I’m using a MacBook Air connected with my iPhone 4G using Safari. What a change from 10 years ago! When I see the single button on the front of the iPhone, I think of all those Nokia, Samsung and Motorola phones I’ve had over the years, with buttons everywhere and confusing interfaces (why do you start a cell phone by pressing the red, End-Call key anyway).

If there is one person who personifies the maniacal obsession with getting every detail right, it has to be Steve Jobs. This is a really different kind of persona. Great products are designed by committee, they are designed in the right ecosystem (see the note above about strategy). They don’t come from think memos or big round tables, they come out of a few minds. The question is how do you find that person.

Actually, the sad part to me is that sometimes it just doesn’t seem that hard. The main point is to simplify the job, because the more multi-purpose the device, the harder it is to make it work. The original iPod is great example. The complexity of the iPad compared with say the purposefulness of the Nook Touch is perhaps another. It is just easier to design a great reader (30 day battery life, 7 inch e-ink) than to create a general purpose tablet that does everything.

As an interesting aside is that the greatness of the iPhone only happened because of the big strategic decisions that Steve Jobs made. That is, it is based on Unix (that’s what iOS is at the core), it is based on standard hardware (ARM core) and it works with every networking technology under the sun (3G, CDMA, Wifi, Bluetooth). Contrast that with the original Mac as an example when Apple took pride in its own standards (Appletalk, Motorola MC68000, AppleBus, etc.).

In the end though, the great advantage a founder has like Steve or Jeff Bezos is that they can say, “Because I’m the CEO, and I think it can be done.” as he said when  he chose to override engineers who thought the iMac wasn’t feasible, as quoted in TIME magazine (24 October 2005).

But in the end, maybe the one thing to remember for a CEO is, “always pick one button over two.”

Letting the Team Succeed

Maybe it is after you are in the right place and the product is actually going to be decent. Then it is a question of how do you get people to want to work and to be a team. As Steve Jobs said one of his greatest worries was that Apple would be like Disney without Walt. So ironically, while the Product person above sounds like an incredible dictator, the question is how to get the best.

Maybe Jack Welch is that icon with all to famous work to make GE a high function organization. His rules like a good person who fails should get another chance while a person who doesn’t share your values should leave even if they are a success, are good examples of how team management works.

This works perhaps because the strategy is right and general product direction is right, but how to get the team to do the right job as a mini-company where every division manager is their own CEO.

That’s the lesson in the end, we are talking about CEOs, but really we are talking about every leader in an organization. There are times when every boss has to be a Bill Gates and change the rules of the game. When they have to be like Steve Jobs and just insist on simplicity and finally when all that is working be Jack Welch and get their subordinates to do the same.